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Power of questions, power of silence

Leadership consultant Lisa Stefanac on knowing when to push and when to pause.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

For Lisa Stefanac, a love for literature was the first step on the path to becoming a People Nerd.

“I was always drawn to stories about the moments where people are tested, and the choices that we make when the stakes are raised,” Stefanac says. “Where you could learn about the characters through their reactions to these major societal experiences and shifts in culture.”

She cites Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mist of Avalon,” the retelling of the Arthurian legend through the eyes of the sorceress Morgaine, as an early favorite, saying it started her on a journey to recognize the power of the female voice.

“It was the first book that showed me just how much a woman’s voice matters,” she says.

But it was a serious accident at 19 that really propelled Stefanac out into the world. A competitive gymnast in her youth, she had been trying to perform an acrobatic move from a tree when she fell and broke her neck in nine places.

“It was stupid, but I was young,” Stefanac reflects. She had emergency surgery and was in a brace for 3 months after the accident. “It became clear to me then,” Stefanac says, “that I hadn’t really lived. That I had gone through 19 years of my life, but I had yet to really experience the world and its people.”

It was that realization that led Stefanac to Europe with a savings of $1500, which she says she naively thought would get her farther than it did. Despite running out of funds after a couple of months, she stayed abroad and ended up working her way around Europe for 15 months.

“It absolutely solidified my love of people, culture, and stories,” she says. “I went from being an au pair in Italy on Sardinia, to harvesting olives in Greece in the Peloponnese, falling in love with all of the places and people in between.”

Stefanac returned home to the U.S. and expanded her focus from English Lit to Public Policy and international affairs, studying how governments work, and, in particular, make decisions for large groups of people. Today, Stefanac runs her own leadership development firm, and is on staff at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She’s still advocating for women’s voices to be heard both in and out of the boardroom, having started a project called The Roots of Wisdom, through which she shares stories from “the wise women elders.”

dscout sat down with Stefanac to talk about the underlying narrative that drives group dynamics, the perfect ratio of advocacy to inquiry, and why sometimes silence is the most powerful way to contribute to the conversation.

dscout: A lot of your work is focused on group dynamics, and how people behave in reaction to others. Why is that of interest to you? Are there things we can learn from group behavior that we can’t learn from solitary interactions?

Lisa Stefanac: With groups and teams, nothing ever gets old. It’s focused on the moment—there are so many permutations of choice and of interaction and response. But it’s also about history—because how people interact with others has a lot to do with their background. And ultimately, there is a self-learning element, and an external feedback loop that is pretty inevitable when you’re interacting with others. And if you’re open to it, it can help you grow as an individual.

For me personally, it took me a little while to understand the power of groups and teams. When I was younger, I tried different things to try and get a better sense of self. For my 24th birthday I took myself to a Tibetan Buddhist center on the Beara Peninsula of Ireland, for a guided meditation course. I realized, yes, you can go inward to learn about yourself. But that solitary time also reinforced for me that the true test is when you interact with other people, when you look at your behavior in relationship to others. Teams and groups are a container for learning about ourselves through how we interact, what feedback we get from the team members that we’re in relationships with. It’s why personal development and team development really go hand in hand.

Teams and groups are a container for learning about ourselves through how we interact, what feedback we get from the team members that we’re in relationships with. It’s why personal development and team development really go hand in hand.

Lisa Stefanac

Are there realizations that you often see people have about their own behavior within the context of a group? Or patterns that emerge in terms of group dynamics?

One of the major things that gets in the way of people actually communicating in a group setting is that there’s this tendency to look at everything through our own lens. Instead of actively listening to what’s being said, we’re self-selecting information that reinforces what we believe, picking up on data that confirms the conclusions we’ve already drawn. Often, my job is to help team members reflect on the process, walk them through the data they selected to utilize and why, and consider how that reinforces the belief system or the conclusions they may have already made. The goal is, instead of doing that, to try and get people to be present, and be curious about what’s possible outside of our own existing belief structures.

For example, during a presentation, you might notice the CFO glances at his watch. And that’s the selected data you go on. In the whole room, you could have selected anything, like the happy smile on the face of the CEO. But you select this piece of data, and you start to think “Oh no, the CFO is bored and wondering when this is going to end.” You might conclude that you’re losing the room, and then take your presentation into overdrive and speed it way up because you’re nervous. Maybe that made the presentation better, but likely, it made it worse. And you hear afterward from a friend on the client team, “Wow, I was finally really understanding what you were talking about in that discussion, but then suddenly you started speeding through everything and I totally lost you.” That’s a pretty common example. Often, what I try to do is get people to back away from those tendencies, to be present in the moment. To engage in active listening and not just tunnel down their own train of thought, and then ultimately derail the conversation. There was a quantum physicist named David Bohm, who started working in the metaphysical space in his later years, and coined the term “thoughting.” I want to get people out of the “thoughting” space, and into the thinking space, where we’re thinking together and co-creating and actually listening, and not having our habitual thoughts and opinions get in the way of what is trying to be created in real-time.

How do you approach that? When you go into a new organization for the first time, what are the first things you look for to try and understand the larger dynamic that’s at play?

First I look for the roles that people are playing, and what roles might be missing. (That goes back to the “four-player model.”) There are certain dynamics on the team that are unhealthy or unproductive, and so I try to get a sense for whether there’s a balance between the roles. I'm also listening for trust. What is the level of trust on this team? Trust advances the stories that we make up about one another. When there isn’t a lot of trust, it fundamentally shifts what’s possible in the conversation, and it’s much more likely that people will go straight to a conclusion using selected data. I’m listening for that and trying to discern if I need to intervene in a conversation and in what way. Because sometimes I will intervene in person in real-time with the team, and sometimes I might have to go one-on-one with someone.

But another major thing I look at is the ratio of advocacy versus inquiry. What percentage of time is this team in “inquiry”? It’s particularly important if they’re trying to make a decision, or really trying to understand an issue or a specific situation. It’s usually in the single digits—less than 10% of the time that somebody’s asking a question. More often, it’s people making statements.

What do you think is a productive ratio?

I usually want to see at least 20% to 25% of a conversation focus on inquiry. It offers so many more opportunities on a team for alignment. It helps build the relationship because it communicates to the other person, “what you care about matters to me.” Inquiry is a great bonding tool. But it also helps to actually expand the perspective of what needs to be talked about in order to make the best decisions at hand, whatever those might be.

We’ve all certainly been in meetings where the conversations are more lopsided than that, with people who don’t think they need to ask questions at all because they already know the path the group should go down. In one sense, it takes an enormous amount of confidence to say “We may not know this yet, and it’s something we should look at.”

Absolutely. Think about what it takes to actually ask a question. You don’t typically want to shoehorn it into the conversation. You need a moment of pause, and space, to let a question naturally come forward. If there isn’t space, then often that means it’s a leading question. It shows why silence is so crucial. Silence is always something I’m listening for, and it’s so rare to hear. It’s so important to take time to silence, to pause. Religions do it. They give space. They say, “Moment of silence now.” Or at sporting events, there’s a halftime, a pause, a moment, a break. There’s a reason for pauses; they’re often the spaces where new, fresh material and thought come from.

And the people who are able to embrace that kind of space, are often the ones who can move teams forward. They tend to be quieter, more introspective. They’ve looked critically at their own behavior, reflected on what drives them, and cultivated the skill-set of emotional intelligence. What I’ve found, after all the teams I’ve worked with, is that the people that are more attuned to their own emotions and the emotions of others—and that’s where empathy comes in—they’re the most productive helping to move a team forward if they’re stuck. Silence is always something I’m listening for, and it’s so rare to hear.

Silence is always something I’m listening for, and it’s so rare to hear.

Lisa Stefanac

You’ve also been working on something called The Roots of Wisdom, a collection of conversations with “women elders.” What’s the idea behind that project?

Yes! It started when I was living in Boston, and my good friend Barbara Merz and I were walking along the Charles River. It was a full moon. We were just walking, giving each other space, (to go back to the importance of space). And then someone said, and neither of us remember who it was, but we both jumped on it: “Where are the wise grandmothers of this day and age?” Here we were, two thirty-somethings, desperately looking for wisdom and guidance and people that we could turn to. We had friends and peers we could talk to, but not people that we saw as wise. That’s one of the things that’s happened throughout history; is the passing down of wisdom over the ages, the wisdom of the elders. It’s so prevalent in different cultural groups and religious groups, but we weren’t finding it in our everyday lives. It was like the mechanism for passing along wisdom and knowledge had disappeared. It used to be passed along through storytelling and mentorship, but today we seem to have lost that. So we decided we needed to go out in search of those people, specifically women, who could dispense some of that knowledge, the wise women elders. We’ve gotten connected to women through these circuitous, grassroots ways; someone you’re sitting next to on an airplane tells you a story about their aunt, or their grandmother, or the neighbor down the street who doesn’t have any relatives but this fount of life knowledge. We made a dream list of women we’d like to speak to, and then started asking other women we knew for recommendations. And it really built from there. It became clear that there was a hunger for it. Once we started digging, we discovered there was this huge pulsating network of women who had all of this wisdom they could share. You just have to dig, get to the roots. That’s where the name came from.

You’ve talked to a number of different women about their journeys, and some of their most personal, intimate moments. An organic gardener who describes the moment she heard her friend was killed in a drunk driving accident. A doula who recalled having to tell a mother that her child wasn’t going to survive. These are pretty powerful moments to share with someone, especially a stranger.

There have been some really incredible moments. One was in an interview we did with a woman named Carla van Raay, who referred to herself as “God’s Callgirl.” She had gone from being a nun to being a prostitute, and then she wrote a book about her life. She truly had the most incredible take on life, and the roles she had taken on, and what it means to be of service. Because in her view, she was fulfilling these two archetypes, of a nun and a prostitute, but they were both lives of service. It was fascinating to hear that juxtaposition, to hear it live in one person.

And then another one of the most memorable moments of the project actually involved silence. We were talking with Anne-Marie Slaughter, it was one of our first interviews. She was walking while we were talking with her on the phone, she took us on a walk around a lake near where she lived. And I say we went on the walk because she really was describing everything about the scenery, and it was all interwoven with a discussion about her job working with Hillary Clinton, and ultimately, why she felt it was wise to leave that job and to put her family first. And all of a sudden, we heard an intake of breath, and we all paused. And Anne-Marie started to describe this American bald eagle that had taken flight above her, and then come around and landed on a tree branch two stories above her head. And it was just sort of this moment, as she was staring up at the eagle, and we were just sort of right there with her, pausing and savoring the moment. That really felt like it was a moment of wisdom. Because someone might have said, “Well, we only have so much time with Anne-Marie Slaughter, we really need to keep going and do this interview.” But somehow we knew it was time to sit and be with the eagle; that the moment was calling for silence and awe. It’s a moment that’s so ingrained in my memory, and from there on the interview took a turn and the conversation went into this beautiful, deeper place, and that came from that ability to sit with her as she watched the eagle. I’m telling you, the power of pause is really pretty incredible. It can be such a unifier if you can just tap into it with someone.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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